Although some of the world's top-ranked institutions such as Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford are hundreds of years old, a series of case studies of successful world-class research universities, prepared by the World Bank, shows that a faster and more effective approach to achieving world-class status is to establish a new institution.
The just-released World Bank study, titled The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world class research universities, found that new universities can grow into top quality research institutions within two or three decades when academic talent, financial resources and governance - particularly autonomy and academic freedom - are present from the start.
World Bank tertiary education coordinator Jamil Salmi, who co-authored the Ford Foundation-funded study with Philip Altbach of Boston University's Center for International Higher Education, told a press conference in Washington on Thursday 6 October: "With proper leadership and vision, existing research universities can drastically improve the quality of their teaching and research."
And new universities also "have the potential of growing into high quality research institutions within two or three decades".
The new study looks at how some of the most successful institutions in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are "outpacing the smartest companies with their original research".
The 11 successful universities studied in detail reveal how they became great in a short space of time. They include Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Shanghai Jiaotong University in China, Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea, the National University of Singapore, the Indian institutes of technology, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico, Russia's Higher School of Economics and universities in Chile.
Salmi said that even though the sample of institutions was too small to be fully conclusive, the studies seemed "to suggest that establishing a new institution is a relatively faster and more effective approach.
"You need to be sufficiently innovative to represent a convincing alternative to existing institutions. And this seems to me easier to achieve when you focus on a niche programme, as demonstrated by the experience of the Indian institutes of technology or the Pohang University of Science of Technology or the Hong Kong university of Science and Technology," he said.
However Pakistan's Shams Kassim Lakha, former president of the Agha Khan University in Karachi, told the conference it was just as important to have excellence in research in the social sciences, the humanities and arts as in the sciences. "Is it really necessary to invent another iPad when systems of governance are failing?" he asked.
Talent is key
Top-performing research universities share three common characteristics - a high concentration of talented academics and students, significant budgets and strategic vision and leadership, according to the authors.
"Global talent search seems to be one of the most powerful accelerating factors" towards world-class status for research universities whether they are in a poor or rich country, and whether they are small or big, said Salmi. "It is all about talent."
According to Salmi, what distinguishes successful East Asian universities from the rest of the world is an emphasis on international staff and students.
"Both Shanghai Jiaotong University [China] and Pohang University of Science and technology [South Korea] made a strategic decision to rely principally on Chinese or Korean academics trained in the best universities in North America or Europe and, to a large extent, to recruit highly qualified foreign faculty," he noted in the study.
But he acknowledged that new research universities face special challenges in attracting top academics and good students.
One of the most successful examples in the study, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "pushed this logic to the extreme," according to Salmi
"The rapid development and rise of the new university can be attributed in large part to its systematic policy of giving priority to outstanding Chinese from the diaspora for staffing the initial contingent of academics."
This enabled the institution to become a node for disseminating global knowledge within the country and region and to contribute to global knowledge, an important characteristic of world-class institutions.
But setting up top universities can cost millions of dollars. For example, the authors show that in late 2007, Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new US$10 billion graduate research university; Pakistan plans to spend $750 million for each of its new universities of engineering, science, and technology during the next few years; and the school of medicine established by Cornell University in Qatar in 2002 cost $750 million.
Many countries cannot afford this. "But our view is that virtually all countries deserve a research university - at least one. They might not all be Oxford or the Sorbonne, but they all need to be able to play on the global stage," said co-author Philip Altbach.
"If they are not producing Nobel prize-winning knowledge, they need to be able to use Nobel prize-winning knowledge, and to make it available to their broader ecological [knowledge] system within the country and within the region."
But the authors acknowledge that many countries would also be better off initially focusing on developing the best national universities possible. Higher-level research institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa that provide quality education and conduct relevant applied research can play a key role in training skilled workers to be "fluent" in the latest technologies and apply them in industries, they said.
But outstanding universities cannot exist in isolation, according to Salmi and Altbach.
"We are convinced that these institutions must be parts of successful and diversified higher education systems with other kinds of post-secondary institutions that serve different needs in society," said Altbach
World-class universities thrive in environments that foster competitiveness, unrestrained scientific inquiry and academic freedom, critical thinking, innovation and creativity. In addition, institutions that have complete autonomy are more flexible because they are not bound by cumbersome bureaucracies and can quickly respond to the demands of a rapidly changing global market.
Despite its huge investment in upgrading universities in an ambitious initiative to have a handful of world-class institutions, in this respect "China certainly faces a big problem", according to Salmi. "We read every day...about further restrictions to the use of the internet and to academic freedom and I am not sure it's compatible with having apex institutions."
But luck plays an important role too.
"Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry," said Altbach. "Not all of these effort will yield results even if some of the terms and conditions, or even if all of the terms and conditions, are fulfilled in the process of development."
Although the focus was on successful examples, particularly in Asia, "many valuable lessons can also be drawn from the African case studies which serve as a stern warning that success is fragile and that prestigious universities, just like famous empires, are prone to fateful destinies should the fundamental enabling conditions disappear," said Salmi, referring to institutions in Nigeria in particular.
* Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi (eds) (2011) The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world class research universities. World Bank.
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